After outcry from business owners, PA loosens West Bank lockdown restrictions
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PA's COVID-19 death toll is at 38

After outcry from business owners, PA loosens West Bank lockdown restrictions

Even as coronavirus cases mount, economic woes takes precedence for some Palestinians over fear of infection; hospitals report shortages of testing kits, ventilators

A mask-clad child sells watermelons in the Askar refugee camp, east of the West Bank city of Nablus, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis, on July 13, 2020. ( JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)
A mask-clad child sells watermelons in the Askar refugee camp, east of the West Bank city of Nablus, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis, on July 13, 2020. ( JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

The Palestinian Authority said Monday it would ease conditions even as it pushes ahead with a further two-week lockdown after an outcry by business owners hurt by coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Small businesses will be allowed to open in addition to supermarkets and pharmacies, as long as they abide by social distancing guidelines. The looser restrictions also exempt “commercial movement” from a ban on movement between West Bank governorates.

Weddings and funerals, so far the main cause of the West Bank’s second wave of coronavirus infections, are still banned, Palestinian Authority government spokesperson Ibrahim Milhim said.

Despite 12 days of lockdown, the PA Health Ministry has continued to confirm hundreds of new cases every day. While the vast majority of active infections are still in Hebron governorate, new outbreaks seem to be spreading elsewhere in the West Bank, especially in the refugee camps around Ramallah.

More worryingly, even as cases mount, the Palestinian Authority is suffering from a shortages of tests and ventilators. Laboratories in Hebron and Bethlehem are on the verge of closing due to a lack of available tests,  said Palestinian health official Osama al-Najjar.

Palestinian medical teams at the hospital in the West Bank town of Dura near Hebron, seen during work in the corona section of the hospital, on July 09, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

“The situation is bad… We’re scared of losing control, and we can’t keep going on like this. People have been working around the clock for 18 days, and our first responders are exhausted,” al-Najjar said.

ِAll of which would seem to justify the PA’s announcement on Sunday night extending the lockdown for up to 19 days. With a health care system already stretched to the limit,  Ramallah can ill afford to see cases spike still further.

The backlash, however, was immediate: dozens of merchants in Hebron and Ramallah gathered Sunday night and Monday to demonstrate against the continued closure of their shops.

“Listen, listen, Mr. President, your people want to live,” demonstrators chanted.

Ramallah governor Leila al-Ghannam almost immediately announced Sunday night that her governorate would be “exempt” from the lockdown rules, while Hebron governor Jabarin al-Bakri struck a deal with the governorate’s Chamber of Commerce to reopen public markets.

In Hebron, the economic heart of the PA, the vast majority of businesses are small, family-owned establishments with fewer than four employees, Hebron Chamber of Commerce Director Abdu Idris told The Times of Israel.

The economic toll of the pandemic, as well as the Palestinian Authority’s yawning fiscal crisis, has been enormous for small business owners, Idris said.

“There are many people who have shut down their businesses, people who can’t pay their employees…These merchants are telling the government, we want to reopen our shops, to pay off some of our mounting debts,” Idris said.

A widely circulated video on Palestinian social media showed a small business owner at one of the gatherings in Ramallah on Monday on the verge of tears as he opened his wallet to show all he had was NIS 20.

“We just want to live,” he told journalists at the scene.

Idris said that he didn’t want to see a reopening if it wasn’t safe, but that given the deepening economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority, he hoped a balance could be struck.

“If there needs to be a lockdown to protect people’s health, then we support that, because we’re talking about human lives here. But we want there to be a balance between health and the economy, Idris said.

The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry confirmed 293 new coronavirus cases on Monday in the West Bank as the death toll since the start of the pandemic rose to 38.

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